Both the Hindu and Muslim localities of Signal Falia, near the Godhra railway station, from where most of the accused in the Sabarmati train burning case of 2002 were picked up, say they want the same thing from this election: a candidate who will deliver on promises. Neither is sure that will happen.
In his late 50s, Hanifbhai, a driver by profession, who is afraid to share his last name, says, “We are common, poor people. We need a basic job which will help us earn a square meal and raise our family. It has been seven days since my truck is parked here… After the GST, a lot of inter-state transactions have stopped… I will vote for sure, but I don’t know for which party. I will see the candidate. Everybody rises to power, but nobody works.”
Over at the Hindu neighbourhood, Jyotika Rana (52), who runs a small soda shop in the Lalbaug bus station area, however, is not sure if she will vote. “What is the point? Everybody comes, makes tall promises, then forgets.”
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Godhra falls under the Panchmahals Lok Sabha seat, which has around 1.94 lakh minority voters, around 12 per cent of the total. In Godhra Assembly constituency itself, one-third of the voters are Muslims.
Immediately after the 2002 riots, Godhra had elected a BJP candidate, Hareshkumar Bhatt. But the Congress had wrested the seat five years later, and continued to win it till 2017, when a leader who had left the party to join the BJP scraped through.
The Lok Sabha seat, on the other hand, called Godhra earlier, has stayed with the BJP since the riots. The party won it in 2004, 2009 and 2014. Its sitting MP from the seat, Prabhatsinh Chauhan, however, has lately turned a rebel.
The Congress also smells a chance as in the 2017 Assembly polls, of the seven seats under the Panchmahals constituency, the Congress and BJP had won three each, while the remaining seat had gone to an Independent.
At the municipality level too, politics has been churning. In 2002, Independent Mohammad Husain Kalota had headed the Godhra body. He was arrested as a prime accused in the Sabarmati burning, along with three other Muslim councillors. Kalota died last year, spending a good part of his later years in prison before he was acquitted.
In the 44-member civic body now, there are 18 councillors of the BJP, 25 Independents and one Congress member. Twenty of the Independents and the lone Congress member are Muslim. However, the BJP holds the presidency, having secured the support of seven Independent councillors. This had sparked off protests from the Muslim community, which saw a lost chance of holding the post after 16 years.
This feeling of exclusion is hard to miss in Signal Falia, where more than a decade after the Sabarmati incident and the riots that followed, Muslims are open to talking, but do so mostly without giving their last names, like Hanifbhai.
Stopping his vehicle to listen to a conversation at a tea stall, a contractual labourer who refuses to give his name altogether says, “I want my daughter and son to study well and give them all I want. For that we need jobs and proper jobs. We don’t indulge much in these political discussions, but if someone comes and asks, I will tell them we want jobs so that we can lead our lives peacefully.”
About the present MP, he adds, “I do not have any complaints, but I don’t know for whom I will vote.”
Abdul Gaffar, 83, a staunch Congress supporter, says the party doesn’t have to even come seeking votes here. “The minority community is like a fixed deposit for the Congress. We will unhesitatingly vote for the Congress.”
But Yakub Sujela, 66, says it’s time the community got out of this mindset. “A lot of us are BJP supporters too. At the end of the day, it is work that speaks. The current MP has helped ensure more trains stop at Godhra, while the only underground bridge close to the railway station has been rebuilt.” Sujela used to work as a loco pilot with the Railways.
In other areas of the Panchmahals seat too, many people vouch for the Modi government. Nimrat Varia of Chilala village in Vejalpur says, “The BJP will come to power and win from Panchmahals. No other party stands a chance.”
Narwar Solanki from Desara village in Kalol asserts, “Under the present government, our village got houses under the Awas Yojna, toilets, RCC roads. Why wouldn’t we vote for them again?”
But the Congress, boosted by its performance in the 2017 Assembly elections, insists it has a fighting chance. “In 2014, the BJP had won the seat by more than one lakh votes, but the difference of votes in the seven Vidhan Sabha constituencies combined had dropped to almost 50 per cent in 2017. We are trying to capitalise on the anti-incumbency against the sitting MP,” says the AICC secretary in-charge for Central Gujarat, Biswaranjan Mohanty.
The Congress’s seat-sharing deal with the NCP is likely to decide who fights against the BJP here. Now in the NCP, veteran Shankersinh Vaghela, who has represented Panchmahals earlier, recently announced it was one of the seats he could contest from.
The sitting MLA from Godhra, C K Raulji, is also considered close to Vaghela. Having won from here on a Congress ticket in 2007 and 2012, he had switched to the BJP ahead of the August 2017 Rajya Sabha elections and won from Godhra in 2017 by just 258 votes.
Rupesh Panchal, who owns a paan stall, contends that Vaghela has a good chance of winning from Panchmahals. “The public needs a new face now.”
As for change of agenda on the ground, so far, to the misery of both Jyotika and Hanifbhai, there have been few signs of that. On February 12, attending a party meeting 10 km from Godhra station, BJP president Amit Shah called for making the Ram temple in Ayodhya. The town also took note of a Mumbai-based filmmaker setting a train coach on fire on March 3, 80 km from Godhra, as part of shooting for a film on PM Modi, that would feature the burning of the Sabarmati Express.
Says Jyotika, “The riots are used as a tool to radicalise people and garner votes. There was no aftermath in Godhra after the train was burnt, but we have become infamous because politicians have used Godhra. Everybody has moved on and so should they. We have genuine issues, like roads, infrastructure, lack of a surgeon at the civil hospital here, jobs.”
As for justice, who has time for that, says Hanifbhai. “My 16-year-old son and three brothers were picked up in the dabba kaand (Sabarmati train burning). They were innocent… but I don’t have the money, power or will anymore (to fight).” All four remain in jail.